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SBL e-journal

Marc Zvi Brettler





Is the Torah a Pentateuch or Hexateuch?



APA e-journal

Marc Zvi Brettler





Is the Torah a Pentateuch or Hexateuch?






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Is the Torah a Pentateuch or Hexateuch?

Whether the Torah is a Pentateuch or Hexateuch is about much more than the number of books or the status of Joshua, but reflects the nature of this collection: Is it a law-book, or is it a narrative book about a promise fulfilled?


Is the Torah a Pentateuch or Hexateuch?

Torah and yad – exhibits in Big Synagogue Museum, Wlodawa – Poland. Wikimedia

Genesis as the Beginning of a Larger Composition[1]

Like many other biblical books, Genesis ends with the death of a main character, Joseph. His death, however, is not a true end to the story. The Israelites are still in Egypt, and the central promises of Lekh Lekha, “I will make of you a great nation”[2] (Gen. 12:2), and “I will assign this land to your heirs”[3] (Gen. 12:7),[4] are unfulfilled.

In Genesis 46:4, God promised Jacob/Israel “I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back,”[5] but this is only achieved in Joshua. Genesis ends with our parashah on a somewhat optimistic note, with Joseph adjuring the children of Israel, perhaps even prophesying (Gen. 50:25),

פָּקֹד יִפְקֹד אֱלֹהִים אֶתְכֶם וְהַעֲלִתֶם אֶת עַצְמֹתַי מִזֶּה
When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here.

But where does this story of promise and fulfillment really end? At the end of the Torah with the death of Moses?

The adjuration by Joseph is only completed in Joshua, specifically in the next to last verse of that book (24:32):

וְאֶת עַצְמוֹת יוֹסֵף אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרַיִם קָבְרוּ בִשְׁכֶם בְּחֶלְקַת הַשָּׂדֶה אֲשֶׁר קָנָה יַעֲקֹב מֵאֵת בְּנֵי חֲמוֹר אֲבִי שְׁכֶם בְּמֵאָה קְשִׂיטָה וַיִּהְיוּ לִבְנֵי יוֹסֵף לְנַחֲלָה.
The bones of Joseph, which the Israelites had brought up from Egypt, were buried at Shechem, in the piece of ground which Jacob had bought for a hundred kesitahs from the children of Hamor, Shechem’s father, and which had become a heritage of the Josephites.”

In fact, that final chapter of Joshua is full of references to the Torah, especially to Genesis, suggesting that Genesis-Joshua form an inclusio,[6] a device that demarcates a literary work; thus Genesis through Joshua should be viewed as a unit.

For example, v. 23, where Joshua commands the nation,

וְעַתָּה הָסִירוּ אֶת אֱלֹהֵי הַנֵּכָר אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבְּכֶם וְהַטּוּ אֶת לְבַבְכֶם אֶל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Then put away the alien gods that you have among you and direct your hearts to the LORD, the God of Israel,”

echoes Gen. 35:2,

וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל בֵּיתוֹ וְאֶל כָּל אֲשֶׁר עִמּוֹ הָסִרוּ אֶת אֱלֹהֵי הַנֵּכָר אֲשֶׁר בְּתֹכְכֶם וְהִטַּהֲרוּ וְהַחֲלִיפוּ שִׂמְלֹתֵיכֶם.
So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, ‘Rid yourselves of the alien gods in your midst, purify yourselves, and change your clothes.

Joshua 24:2-13 contains a mini-history of Israel that runs from Nahor, Abraham’s father, through the conquest of Israel. It begins with (vv. 2-3),

בְּעֵבֶר הַנָּהָר יָשְׁבוּ אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם מֵעוֹלָם תֶּרַח אֲבִי אַבְרָהָם וַאֲבִי נָחוֹר וַיַּעַבְדוּ …אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים
.In olden times, your forefathers — Terah, father of Abraham and father of Nahor — lived beyond the Euphrates and worshiped other gods. But I took your father Abraham from beyond the Euphrates…[7]

It ends, not with the death of Moses, but with the main theme of Joshua, the fulfillment of the patriarchal promise with the conquest of the lands to the west of the Jordan River (vv. 11-13):

יא וַתַּעַבְרוּ אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן וַתָּבֹאוּ אֶל יְרִיחוֹ וַיִּלָּחֲמוּ בָכֶם בַּעֲלֵי יְרִיחוֹ הָאֱמֹרִי וְהַפְּרִזִּי וְהַכְּנַעֲנִי וְהַחִתִּי וְהַגִּרְגָּשִׁי הַחִוִּי וְהַיְבוּסִי וָאֶתֵּן אוֹתָם בְּיֶדְכֶם. יב וָאֶשְׁלַח לִפְנֵיכֶם אֶת הַצִּרְעָה וַתְּגָרֶשׁ אוֹתָם מִפְּנֵיכֶם שְׁנֵי מַלְכֵי הָאֱמֹרִי לֹא בְחַרְבְּךָ וְלֹא בְקַשְׁתֶּךָ. יג וָאֶתֵּן לָכֶם אֶרֶץ אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָגַעְתָּ בָּהּ וְעָרִים אֲשֶׁר לֹא בְנִיתֶם וַתֵּשְׁבוּ בָּהֶם כְּרָמִים וְזֵיתִים אֲשֶׁר לֹא נְטַעְתֶּם אַתֶּם אֹכְלִים.
Then you crossed the Jordan and you came to Jericho. The citizens of Jericho and the Amorites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hittites, Girgashites, Hivites, and Jebusites fought you, but I delivered them into your hands. I sent a plague ahead of you, and it drove them out before you — [just like] the two Amorite kings — not by your sword or by your bow. I have given you a land for which you did not labor and towns which you did not build, and you have settled in them; you are enjoying vineyards and olive groves which you did not plant.

In other words, this summary views Genesis-Joshua as a unit.

Joshua, unlike the other books of the Former Prophets (Joshua-Kings), is full of references to the Torah. God’s initial charge to Joshua, Josh 1:6,

חֲזַק וֶאֱמָץ כִּי אַתָּה תַּנְחִיל אֶת הָעָם הַזֶּה אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי לַאֲבוֹתָם לָתֵת לָהֶם.
Be strong and resolute, for you shall apportion to this people the land that I swore to their fathers to assign to them.

repeats Deut. 31:23:

וַיְצַו אֶת יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בִּן נוּן וַיֹּאמֶר חֲזַק וֶאֱמָץ כִּי אַתָּה תָּבִיא אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי לָהֶם וְאָנֹכִי אֶהְיֶה עִמָּךְ.
And He charged Joshua son of Nun: ‘Be strong and resolute: for you shall bring the Israelites into the land that I promised them on oath, and I will be with you.

This suggests that the Book of Joshua is the direct continuation of the end of Deuteronomy, and not the beginning of a new unit that we now call Nevi’im, prophets; this is supported by much more evidence in Joshua.[8]

Other books from the Former Prophets contain some echoes or allusions to the Torah, but these are much less sustained and extensive than those found in Joshua. Phrased differently, the multiple allusions to the Torah in Joshua, the book that immediately follows the Torah, and especially the manner in which Joshua fulfills the Torah, and the book’s description of a large Israelite population inheriting the land, completes and concludes the Torah, especially the patriarchal promises. The end of Joshua, including the burial of Joseph, which returns the reader to our parashah at the end the end of Genesis, is icing on the cake, confirming the narrative arc of Genesis-Joshua, and the likely existence of Genesis-Joshua (rather than Genesis-Deuteronomy) as a composition at some point in history.

Stated differently, imagine if you can, giving someone who was not at all familiar with the Bible and its structure the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, and asking them to divide these nine books into two groups. I believe that most people, on the basis of content, theme, and structure would put the divider between Joshua and Judges rather than between Deuteronomy and Joshua.

The Hexateuch

For these and other reasons, from the end of the nineteenth century, many biblical scholars spoke of the Hexateuch, six books, namely Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua, rather than the Pentateuch, the five books of Genesis-Deuteronomy, the Torah, as the first large unit of the Hebrew Bible. This consensus has begun to erode, with some scholars returning to the Pentateuch model, others speaking of a Tetrateuch (Genesis-Numbers) followed by the Deuteronomistic History (Deuteronomy-Kings), books that share much common vocabulary and ideology. Others refer to an Enneateuch, a nine-book collection of the Pentateuch plus Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings.[9]

Although this debate about the best way to divide the beginning of the Bible into units of four, five, six or nine books continues to rage among scholars, all agree that the evidence marshaled above concerning Joshua as the conclusion to a six book unit has significant merit. It suggests that at one point, some form of the larger work beginning with Genesis concluded with some form of Joshua. This order is more logical than a conclusion with Deuteronomy 34. How and why then did the initial unit of the Bible become the five-book Torah?

The Five-Book Torah

Nowhere in the Hebrew Bible is there an explicit reference to a five-part Torah ending with the death of Moses. In fact, the most certain earliest evidence for a five-book Torah is found in a polemical work, Contra Apion, written by the Jewish historian Josephus in the first century CE. In discussing a twenty-two (!) part Bible comprised of books that are “justly accredited,” he writes: “Of these, five are the books of Moses, comprising the laws and the traditional history from the birth of man down to the death of the lawgiver.”[10]

It seems unlikely, however, that the idea of the Bible being introduced by a five-section Torah that concludes with the death of Moses derives from a time as late as Josephus, in the first century CE. Although the Bible never refers to a five-book Torah that concludes with Moses’s death, the conclusion of the Torah with the death of Moses is implied in some of the latest biblical books, such as Malachi, Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles (Divrei HaYamim), and Daniel, all of which refer to תורת משה, “the Torah of Moses.” This title makes little sense if the referent were Genesis-Joshua—surely no one in antiquity imagined Moses writing the book of Joshua!

In addition, in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Bible begun in the third century BCE, the word torah is translated as nomos, “law,” rather than the more appropriate “instruction,” which may include narrative as well.[11] This rendition makes more sense for a corpus lacking Joshua, which is hardly a legal text.[12]

The Meaning of the Victory of the Pentateuch Over the Hexateuch

As implied above, the five-book Torah is primarily a book of nomos, law. Such a work became the Torah by the fifth-fourth century BCE or so, the period of Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles, likely supplanting a six-part collection, the Hexateuch, comprised of Genesis-Joshua. This may have even happened in some form during the Babylonian exile, when the Jews no longer possessed the land, and a book that emphasized land-possession was replaced by one that advocated the centrality of law.

The Hexateuch began with creation and a more “universal” introduction that served, in part, to justify the choosing of Abraham; it then moved to its prime focus, the promise of land and progeny to the patriarchs and its fulfillment. The Hexateuch is thus thematically more coherent than the Pentateuch. It likely came into being in some form when Israel was in its land, with the promise fulfilled. Relative to the Hexateuch, the Pentateuch downplays the fulfillment of the theme of the promise to the patriarchs, concentrating instead on Moses as a lawgiver and the centrality of the law of Moses.

Thus, the difference between a Pentateuch and the Hexateuch is about much more than whether the first unit of the Bible contains Joshua or not, and is comprised of five or six books. The debate reflects the nature of this collection: Is it a law-book, or is it a narrative book with laws about a promise fulfilled? Our parashah, with its close connections to the end of Joshua, suggests the latter. But it does not offer the definitive answer, and this important debate concerning the relative merit of fulfilling the mitzvot versus the centrality of the land of Israel continues to reverberate in contemporary Judaism.


December 10, 2013


Last Updated

October 13, 2020


View Footnotes

Prof. Marc Zvi Brettler is Bernice & Morton Lerner Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at Duke University, and Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies (Emeritus) at Brandeis University. He is author, most recently, of How to Read the Jewish Bible (also published in Hebrew), co-editor of The Jewish Study Bible and The Jewish Annotated New Testament, and co-author of The Bible and the Believer. Brettler is cofounder of Project TABS (Torah and Biblical Scholarship) –